Thursday, July 27, 2006
After the pronouncements we had made that we probably wouldn't be taking any road trips during July and August, here we are, trekking out over the parched Texas landscape in late July. Texas is in the middle of an awful drought, and the temperature is hitting 100 degrees or more on a regular basis. So why, you may ask, are we doing this? Well, it's Bubba's fault.
Bubba and LouAnn Barker, of whom we've written elsewhere in this blog, are dear friends whom we tease mercilessly, and they give back as good as they get. Some weeks ago, Bubba began talking about our meeting in Amarillo to see the long-running play, "Texas," at the ampitheater in Palo Duro Canyon. We had heard about the canyon and the play for many years, but we just hadn't gotten around to visiting there, (probably because the play is performed only in the summertime). We waffled for a while, fearful that Sandy's heat sensitivity might be a factor for an open-air setting deep in a Texas canyon in August, but then Bubba threw in the clincher: Sunday lunch at his parents' house in Lockney. Algene and Barry Barker are simply delightful people, and getting to visit them and sample Algene's promised chocolate pie was too much to resist. This now had all the makings of a trip that might be worth challenging the relentless Texas heat. Sandy is still wary, but we were told that nights in the Palo Duro Canyon are cool. We'll see.
As usual, we pulled away from the house shortly after noon and were famished after the long four-mile journey to Luby's cafeteria in Bedford. So, we stopped for lunch and then headed west through Fort Worth and onto I-20 to Abilene. Yes, we knew this was not a direct route to Amarillo, but we prefer not to travel the same road to and from a destination if we don't have to. Besides, neither of us had been to Abilene before, and we thought it would be a good idea to expand our knowledge of our home state. Before leaving, we checked with another friend, Bobby Hedlund, for advice on places to eat in Abilene. Bobby had lived there for a number of years, and we figured he would know better than anyone where to get a good meal.
Suffice it to say that the leg to Abilene was uneventful, but it was sad to see how burned-up the vegetation was along the highway. I'm not one who believes global warming is the fault of mankind, as I think the earth's climate is cyclical. The last couple of summers in Texas, however, make me wish for another Ice Age!
We unhooked at the Abilene KOA, which was a nice park with level gravel sites and lots of mesquite and pecan trees around. Then we headed just east of town for dinner at the Lytle Land and Cattle Co. steakhouse, one of Bobby's recommendations. This was a large restaurant with (obviously) a west Texas ranch theme. The waitstaff were liveried in blue jeans and cowboy hats and very friendly. We ordered a couple of shish kebabs and found them to be just the right amount, the beef nicely retaining the smokiness of the open mesquite grill that was in view of the diners.
Afterward, we drove around town a bit to see the sights. During part of this excursion, we got Bobby on the cell phone, and he was gracious enough to provide us a sort of running commentary as he helped us find our way through downtown, which wasn't what you would call lively. Boy, they really roll up the sidewalks after dark in Abilene. We ended up the evening at Wal-Mart (where else?) to get a few things and turned in for the evening.
Friday, July 28, 2006
We had a mini-crisis as we were preparing to leave Abilene this morning. Homer's water pressure had degraded during our recent Branson trip, and we had been working with United RV in Fort Worth to get it fixed. This morning, it slowed to a trickle, even though I had not installed the flow restrictor (necessary for RVs because the light duty plastic plumbing will develop leaks if subjected to normal city water pressure of, say, 80 psi.) I suspected a clogged water filter, but United looked at it and swore that was not the problem. I hoofed it up to the KOA office and asked if there was a reputable RV repair facility nearby. She said I should talk to Jerry at Jerry's Campers, about three miles away. So, I jumped in the hornet and headed out. Jerry's was a small and inelegant dealership, obviously family-run, the main office giving the impression of a well used and cluttered den in someone's residence. I was greeted by Jerry, who said that he would be glad to take a look at the trailer if we would bring it by after lunch. This was stunning, as I had been accustomed to having to wait days or weeks for an appointment for service at United RV. With this news, I hurried back to camp, where Sandy had most everything in the trailer ready to go. We hooked up and headed for Jerry's.
Jerry is about 60, wiry and tiresome in his peripatetic zig-zagging from here to there. He also had a ready quip for every conversation, telling us, winking, that it was so dry that he had school-age grandchildren who had never seen rain. Upon learning of our destination that day, he warned us that Texas ends just west of Sweetwater, and if we're not careful, we'll fall off the edge. Being an insufferable teaser myself, I felt as though I had a soul mate.
Jerry's only service employee was Cesar, a tall Hispanic man, whom Jerry immediately assigned the repair task. As soon as he turned on the water pump, Cesar said we had a problem. He almost immediately went for the water filter, which I, too, had suspected was clogged. The technicians at United RV said they had checked it, however, and found it to be okay. Jerry did not carry in stock a cartridge for the water filter, so I asked Cesar, who had disappeared briefly, to put in a bypass. He grinned as he pulled from his pocket a six-inch tube that he had fashioned with the appropriate fittings to accomplish just that. As soon as this was installed, Voila! The water pressure was back to normal again. I muttered under my breath a few well-crafted criticisms of United RV and decided I would just leave the filter bypassed from now on. The first Homer didn't have a filter and besides, we only drink bottled water in the RV anyway. If the faucet screens get dirty, I'll just change them myself.
Sandy had made some sandwiches, which we ate while Homer was being repaired, and we offered some to Jerry and Cesar, who declined. Jerry, grinning, said he would prefer some watermelon, if we had any. We didn't, of course, and his eyes twinkled as he obviously enjoyed Sandy's usual effusive apologies. In no time, we were on the road, having enjoyed immensely our interaction with this personable man who went out of his way to help a stranger in need. It had begun to rain as we were leaving Jerry's, who said that we were a good omen, having brought rain, and that we should come back soon and bring more.
We transitioned to US 84 at Sweetwater, where, astonishingly, we did not fall off the edge of the earth, as Jerry had warned. We regretted that we were unable to visit Mrs. Allen's legendary fried chicken joint in Sweetwater (we had heard from several friends that it is a wonderful little eating place with no menu, everything being served family style at communal tables.) I guess we'll just have to come back sometime. Near Sweetwater, the flat mesas that form the Llano Estacado began to rise, and I was enthralled with the scores of giant electricity-generating windmills that stuck up everywhere on top of these buttes. I couldn't believe that I wasn't aware of their existence, as I thought I kept up with current events pretty well.
The rest of the trip north was uneventful. We left highway 84 at Lubbock and took I-27 toward Amarillo, marveling at the breathtaking endlessness of the flat farmlands of the high plains. The weather was mercifully cloudy with scattered rain showers, and the temperature never climbed over 84 degrees. What a change from yesterday! I-27 was straight and smooth, and Hornet's diesel engine droned on reliably at its usual cruising 1800 RPM, the cruise control set, as always, at 60 mph. Sandy is usually pretty tolerant of these long, unremarkable interstate legs, but I could tell this was getting to her. She would point out, in the treeless, carefully tilled landscape, rows of electric transmission lines that stretched as far as the eye could see, disappearing over the distant horizon. She stared at tiny farmhouses that looked like the little plastic Monopoly pieces, plopped down amidst thousands of acres of plowed soil with no neighbors for miles and no towns for dozens of miles. We both wondered what life there must be like, so seemingly isolated. Sandy allowed that the womenfolk must be really good planners, as they couldn't just run to the corner store if they forgot something for a recipe they were making. Having lived in the city for so long now, we would have a hard time adjusting, I think. I'm sure there are many compensating factors these farm families would offer in rebuttal, however, and they would probably be just as perplexed at the thought of coping with big city life.
Trying to be helpful in dealing with our boredom, I suggested to Sandy that she could look for mile markers and their associated numbered exits from the interstate. At the time, we were passing mile 22, and I told her we would be exiting at mile 106 to go out to the Palo Duro campground. She gamely played along, announcing one mile post after the other, offering with each alert a brief musing regarding the desolation or remoteness of the region. Example: "Do you know why there are no flies out here? They die of exhaustion flying from one cow patty to the next." Fortunately for her, counting mile markers proved to be like counting sheep, and it wasn't long until she dozed off. When she awoke, she saw that we were only at mile 49, so she pronounced that mileposts in this part of Texas are obviously five miles apart, not the one mile I had suggested. She was pleased that she discovered this disparity and planned to report it to the authorities.
Palo Duro Canyon From Rim
We pulled into the park just as the last wisps of daylight were disappearing from the western sky. The attendant had our reservation and gave us a map to our campground. About a half-mile into the park, the maw of the canyon became visible, and we began the thousand-foot descent down the winding road that had been carved into the steep cliffs. While the Palo Duro is hardly as gargantuan as the Grand Canyon, which is five times larger, it is nonetheless quite a scar in the otherwise flat prairie. This erosion, about a hundred miles long, occurred over several million years by the Prairie Dog Town tributary of the Red River. The exposed canyon walls reveal many colorful layers of sedimentary rock, consisting of mostly reddish hues that are quite beautiful, especially at sunrise and sunset. The entry road makes a loop for several miles at the bottom of the canyon where various historical markers tell of the discovery of the canyon by Coronado some four hundred years ago and the various skirmishes and ultimate defeat of the Indians that were indigenous to the region.
By the time we made it to our campsite, it was completely dark outside, and it wasn't at all clear how well I would negotiate backing Homer into its berth. Since I could see nothing but blackness in my mirrors, I had to rely totally on Sandy to guide me, using the walkie-talkies. Fortunately, Bubba came out of his trailer to greet us and took over this job from Sandy. Bubba gave good directions and, in a few minutes, we were perfectly positioned and settling in for the night.
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Bubba and His Tent
We awoke this morning to the clanging together of aluminum pipes. Peeking outside, I saw Bubba, who was assembling his obligatory shade tent near his trailer. One has to admire his energy and tenacity, although on the two trips we have made with the Barkers, the tent went largely unused. I think Bubba does this by instinct; I'm not at all sure that he does not have some kind of Bedouin ancestry. Stepping outside, I could survey in the now illuminated sky the features of the Sagebrush campground, with the red canyon walls rising all around. This was a smallish park, one of two state campgrounds at the bottom of the canyon. The area was fairly flat and open, with small mesquite trees growing everywhere. Almost all the spaces were taken by RVs of every imaginable type. A couple of the spots were occupied by tents. We shuddered as we drove by these, but had to respect their hardy occupants. I heard Sandy mutter under her breath, "You couldn't pay me enough money..." I had to agree with her.
Around noon we drove into Amarillo, about 20 miles away. We followed the Barkers to Sisemore's RV dealership, where Bubba and LouAnn drooled over a new fifth wheel and we bought a couple of things for Homer. Upon recommendation of Mr. Sisemore, we then drove to the Coyote Junction restaurant on Grand Avenue. He told us it was a dump, and he was right. The place looked like a small house that had been abandoned. The signs on the building were barely visible as the hot Texas sun and incessant wind had pretty much eroded all the paint away from the wooden structure. The wooden porch was in need of repair, and several pieces of junk adorned the entire front of the structure, among them a white porcelain toilet full of dirt and weeds. The parking lot was full, however, and upon entering, we found only one unoccupied table. I knew this had to be good. I was right, of course. I had some wonderful green chile stew for a starter, and we all had ribeye steaks, except for BriAnn, Bubba and LouAnn's daughter, who had what looked like a killer cheeseburger. It was a great meal, and we enjoyed the camaraderie.
Coyote Junction Cafe in Amarillo
After lunch, the Barkers led us downtown, where we were impressed by the mix of modern and old buildings. This area was laid out in the typical square city blocks arrangement, but it had an open feel, and everything seemed very neat and clean. The First Baptist Church and the Polk Street Methodist Church were especially beautiful structures, as was the Santa Fe building, constructed of white limestone with a wonderful rococo design at the top. All in all, we were pretty impressed with Amarillo, this bustling jewel in the midst of the vastness of the Texas plains. We heard an interesting statistic from someone today—that 65 percent of the beef consumed in the U. S. comes from the cattle that pass through the huge feedlots of the Texas panhandle.
Soon we made our way back to our campground, to prepare for the performance of "Texas" at the park ampitheater. When we arrived, we met up with Barry and Algene, Bubba's parents, who had driven up from Lockney, and another couple who had driven down from Dalhart. We drove out to the theater grounds, where we had a catered barbecue dinner (not so great) that the theater patrons can purchase for $8.50 a head. After we ate, we went out to the parking lot, where we had a tailgate party with cake and homemade ice cream that Bubba and LouAnn had made. I guess I probably overdosed on about six month's worth of carbs, but that was some good stuff. By this time, around 8:00 p.m., the temperature was dropping rapidly from the 95 degrees earlier in the day. Fortunately, the humidity is typically quite low here on the high plains, so the high summer temps aren't nearly as oppressive as that of Dallas or, even worse, Houston. We entered the ampitheater about 8:15, along with about 1100 other people. This was a great natural setting, as the high canyon cliffs provided most of the backdrop, with far more realism than would be available in a traditional theater. This natural area was used to its fullest, as the production used many horses with riders and horses pulling various kinds of wagons. The theme of the musical revolved around the settlement of the Texas panhandle and the natural rivalry between cattlemen and farmers that exists to this day. There was a love story, of course; as you might expect, the cattleman's niece falls in love with a young farmer, and their marriage symbolizes the harmony that now exists, presumably, between cattlemen and farmers today. While the principal actors have played their roles for quite a long time, most members of the cast are students from West Texas State University, and their performance was quite professional and energetic. There were all sorts of special effects, including a manmade thunderstorm and prairie fire, and there was a nice fireworks display at the end of the show. The only slight flaw was that the sound system, while quite good, could not always overcome the dissipation of sound by the openness of the theater and the strong breeze that was blowing through the canyon. For this reason, we couldn't understand some of the dialogue. All in all, however, it was a truly unique experience, and well worth taking in if you're anywhere in the area.
"Texas" at the Palo Duro Canyon
After Dark at the Theater